Football: United scent early title celebration

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The Independent Online
At just after eight o'clock this evening Manchester United could be rejoicing in their fourth Premiership title in five seasons. For the championship to be confirmed eight days ahead of schedule, and, quite properly, on a Saturday, Alex Ferguson's team must win their morning match against Leicester City at Filbert Street - thereby applying pressure not a little unfairly on Liverpool - with the Merseysiders failing to beat Tottenham Hotspur in their evening game at Anfield.

How ironic that the Football Association should be imploring fans to arrive early on these last two weekends of the season in order to ensure that all matches finish at the same time when a vital discrepancy like this exists purely for the benefit of their Sky paymasters.

Should that particular scenario fail to materialise (and one should bear in mind that Liverpool haven't won any of their last three home fixtures against Spurs) United may have only to wait until Monday, against Middlesbrough, to confirm what Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, among a few hundred thousand others, resigned himself to long ago.

An 11th championship success would still leave United seven short of Liverpool's record but their monopoly of the title is fast approaching the standards of Liverpool who, during one particularly successful period between 1979-84 won it five times in six seasons. Ferguson, however, is in no rush for title No 11 - "We'll win it if we win on Saturday," he said, "but it doesn't matter when and the most important thing for us is to make sure we don't get carried away."

At least the loss of Robbie Fowler through suspension until the end of the season could be offset for Liverpool by the absence of Ian Walker in the Tottenham goal. The England keeper is struggling with shoulder and Achilles injuries and Espen Bardsen is standing by to make his debut.

Goalkeepers, or rather the absence of them, could have a bearing at the bottom of the division. Middlesbrough, who must beat Aston Villa at the Riverside to have any realistic hope of sustaining their Premiership interest through to Monday, are without their two first-choice keepers, Mark Schwarzer and Gary Walsh, because of injury while their No 3, Ben Roberts, will be carrying an injury into the game. Full-back Neil Cox is standing by.

It will take little short of a broken leg to prevent most players from playing their part in the fight for survival. In the case of Stuart Pearce, the player-manager of Nottingham Forest, it would probably take that and much more besides. Hence he has included himself in the squad for the club's do-or-die encounter with Wimbledon despite missing the last two games with a calf injury as well the midweek international at Wembley. Anything less than a victory today and they will be reacquainting themselves with the First Division for the second time in four seasons.

With all six of the bottom clubs at home, even if you include the "safe seat" of Leicester, they will have only themselves to blame if they fail. Everton's need of a point to make absolutely sure that manager-elect Bobby Robson will be in charge of a top flight club next season, could seriously impinge on Sunderland's survival prospects in their last competitive match at Roker Park. Better late than never, Niall Quinn is set to make his first start in seven months.

Coventry City, who, as usual, are going through their Houdini routine, may have to effect today's escape, against Derby County, without Dion Dublin, who has a knee injury. With eight points out of 12 only Southampton, of those down among the dead men, have struck a richer vein of form than the Sky Blues.

Matt Le Tissier has made himself available for today's game against Blackburn Rovers but it will take a brave, or more likely, foolhardy man to rock the boat now -particularly after the way his deputy, Michael Evans, has been performing.

Of those placed immediately above the bottom three, West Ham would appear the most vulnerable in terms of form. As the Hammers' luck would have it Sheffield Wednesday, still in pursuit of an unlikely European dream, visit Upton Park with Andy Booth, David Hirst and Dejan Stefanovic restored to fitness. West Ham must hope that Slaven Bilic, set for a summer move, probably to Goodison, still has the Eastenders' fortunes at heart on his return from suspension.

One man who is not going anywhere, apparently, is Les Ferdinand. On the eve of Newcastle's visit to Arsenal, with whom, along with Liverpool, they are contesting the second Champions' League spot, the club allayed any fears about the England striker's future at St James' Park. "There's no problem with Les," Kenny Dalglish, the Newcastle manager, said. "If he was concerned he'd speak to me and he's never said anything."

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